YANGON (March 10, 2014) – U Ye Htut, Myanmar’s deputy minister of information and presidential spokesman, spoke to attendees of a landmark international media conference here on the evolution of the press in his country following ongoing political reforms. “It is the media that empowers citizens to make informed decisions, required to achieve democratic reforms in our society,” he said.
U Ye Htut said Myanmar is becoming more open to the press, both foreign and domestic. He said more than 20 news agencies have opened up bureaus in the country, and that the first privately owned daily newspapers began appearing on newsstands last year after a more than 50-year absence.
He said Myanmar’s domestic media face a series of challenges, including continued mistrust between the government and the press.
“Most of the government ministries are reluctant to share their information with the press and the public,” he said. He noted his ministry is working with others in the government on developing guidelines for dealing with the media, and he hoped that increased transparency would alleviate that mistrust.
Another challenge, he said, is the scant opportunities for journalism training programs. He said that NGOs and various foreign governments are working with the media in Myanmar to develop training for young journalists to help improve the standard of journalism.
A related challenge, he said, was a lack of ethics codes for the press that causes people to wonder how accurate and trustworthy journalists truly were.
“The quality of the news and the ethical standards are questioned by many people,” he said. “There are no adequate public redress or complaint systems.”
He suggested that current media laws before the country’s national assembly would help solve this problem by increasing diversity in media ownership and creating a press council to handle complaints from the public. He did not mention any timetable for passage of these laws.
U Ye Htut said he also believed that heavy media concentration in Yangon contributed to issues facing the domestic press. Noting that “99 percent of the media is based in Yangon,” he said that “the Minister of Information is working for the diversity of information and diversity of ownership in our process.” This would mean increasing the amount of media coverage in ethnic minority areas, and promoting journalism from those areas, he added.
“Yes – during the last few years, we made some mistakes,” he said. “We are not perfect. We still have challenges to overcome. But we have a clear vision for a new Myanmar. We have a reform strategy. And most importantly, we have the political will to implement it.”
After his address, he took questions from attendees. Two journalists from Reuters and AP asked about visa difficulties for their staff and wondered if it was due to their international coverage of ethnic tensions in the Rakhine region.
“We can’t control the media in the digital age,” U Ye Htut answered, adding that no visas were denied due to negative press attention. He said the government was reviewing the visa application procedures for all foreigners.
But in a press availability following his address, he was asked about the denial of a visa for Hannah Beech, the China bureau chief for TIME magazine, who wrote a 2013 cover story on the violence in Rakhine that was strongly criticized by many in Myanmar. Beech had planned to attend the media conference, but her application for a journalist visa was turned down just a few days before the event, for what the government said was her own safety. Of more than 300 foreign journalists and media experts from more than 30 countries to attend the conference, Beech was the only applicant whose visa was denied.
“When we reviewed her visa application, we think this is not the appropriate time for her to visit here because some people are very angry about her,” he replied, “and that will not only affect her but also this international conference. So we sent a letter to her that it is not the appropriate time, but if she wants to back come later, we are ready to accept.”